The Cakewalkin' Jass Band (CJB) was organized in December of 1967. After playing three short night club jobs and one wedding, the band opened at Tony Packo's Cafe Wednesday, July 3, 1968. Eleven and one-half years later, the CJB was still packing them in every Friday and Saturday night at the Hungarian style restaurant.
On Friday May 9, 1980, the CJB began a new era in Toledo by opening at Lulu's Storyville Saloon in Old Towne at Southwyck Mall. Expanding to four nights (Wednesday through Saturday) the band played in a total New Orleans setting especially created for them - including three authentic Creole dishes.
Accommodating the will of the people of Toledo, the band returned to Tony Packo's Friday, August 21, 1981. The Cafe has remodeled the rest rooms, added another room to handle the large crowds, and converted a back room to a balcony.
Starting out as a four piece group with banjo, drums, piano, and clarinet, the band expanded after beginning at Packo's to include cornet, trombone, tuba and/or sting bass. The size of the band has been four, five, six, seven, six, back to seven and now eight persons. Presently, the instrumentation is banjo, string bass, piano, cornet, clarinet, drums, trombone, and vocalist with eight members. Over the years, there has been 27 full time musicians and about 27 often used substitutes in the CJB.
The band has become very popular and plays many jobs outside of Packo's. For the past few years, the group has averaged almost one night a week besides its regular stint at the East Side Emporium. These jobs consist mainly of dances, dinners, weddings, and parties. Other gigs include playing for jazz clubs, festivals, and funerals.
Jazz clubs that the Cakewalkin' Jass Band has played for are the Detroit Hot Jazz Society, the Indianapolis Jazz Club (IJC), the Classic Jazz Society of Southwestern Ohio, the Charleston (West Virginia) Jazz Club, the Potomac River Jazz Club (PRJC), the Detroit Windsor Jazz Club, the Vintage Jazz Club of Muskegon, Michigan, the Illiana Jazz Club, the Tack Room in Illiopolis, Illinois, and Earlyjas in Kent, Ohio. The first seven listed above have used the band on numerous occasions. Clarinetist and leader, Ray Heitger, has been made an honorary life member of the IJC.
The bands first festival was the Detroit-Windsor Jazz Festival. then came a four year run the annual Schuss Mountain (Mancelona, Michigan) Jazz Symposium - to which the band has returned many times. The CJB was one of fifteen bands to participate in the World Championship of Jazz held in Indianapolis. Heitger was selected as one of the six outstanding musicians at the festival. Sandwiched among these was a small jazz festival held at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. Starting in 1978, the band has played an unprecedented seventeen years at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport, Iowa. This event draws well over 20,000 jazz fans. The CJB has also played the prestigious St. Louis Ragtime Festival, and twice the largest festival in the country, the Sacramento (California) Dixieland Jubilee attracting over 250,000 fans. 1988 was the third year since 1984 to play the Sturgis Falls Dixieland Jazz Fest in Cedar Falls, Iowa. 1987 marked the fourth time that the band had played the Olde Towne Jazz Festival in Traverse City, Michigan, since playing the first in 1980. The CJB has helped to inaugurate two new Midwest festivals: In 1985 the Central Ohio Dixieland Jazz Festival (also playing it in 1986 and 1987) in Columbus, Ohio; in 1986 the "Banks of the Wabash" Traditional Jazz Festival in Terre Haute, Indiana (the band returned to Terre Haute in 1987 - unfortunately, its last year); and in 1996 The Greater DesMoines Good Time Jazz Festival, returning again in 1997. The CJB played the very popular Central City Jazz Festival in Central City, Colorado in 1988 and 1990. Also in 1990, the band played its first Northern Michigan Dixieland Weekend in Bay View, Michigan. 1991 saw the band perform at the 12th Annual San Diego Thanksgiving Dixieland Jazz Festival in California.
Heitger's Spittune Records has produced seven albums of the Cakewalkin' Jass Band. The first five: "Tony Packo Presents", "Plus 456", "Doin' the Cake Walk", "Take 4", and "Thank You Fans", are available only on cassette tape while the sixth, "For all You Diehards and Lovers of Fine Music" is out on both tape and LP. Also done the same day as "Thank You Fans" was a trio album with clarinet, piano, and tuba titled "The Whole World is Shakin' That Thing". it is available on tape. All in all, over eight thousand records and tapes have been sold to jazz fans at home and around the world - including Russia. The band's newest recording, "Our Latest Hot Selling Album", recorded in 1996, has been released on CD and cassette. It also features two other Heitgers: Duke and Nicole.
There have been about twelve funerals that the CJB has played for including that of two of the Cafe owners, the late Tony Packo Sr.'s wife Rose Packo and her daughter Nancy Packo Horvath. Two of these were in the true New Orleans tradition with the up-tempo happy jazz after the burial following the somber dirges at the service.
Several articles about the band have appeared in the Toledo Blade, the Jazzologist, the Classic Rag, and the Mississippi Rag. Seven TV specials produced for public TV in grand Rapids, Michigan, Toledo, and Davenport plus three Toledo public radio performances round out the bands varied musical activities.
With all this and an authentic New Orleans style repertoire now at over 470 tunes, the Cakewalkin' Jass Band has a bright active future. The band's love of the music and of bringing its inherent happiness to an audience is infectious - as the thousands upon thousands of people who have seen and heard the band will attest to.
Ray Heitger (12/15/43) Clarinet, soprano saxophone, vocals. Born Beaver, Pennsylvania. Self taught. Started playing at age 19 June 1963. To Toledo in September 1965. June 1967 organized "Dixieland 5 1/2". Disbanded after six months. Organized CJB in December 1967. Married; Elizabeth. Four children; Duke (a cornetist), Renee, Andrea, Nicole (a vocalist). Mathematics instructor at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio.
Dave Kosmyna (11/7/75) Cornet, vocals. Born, Toledo, Ohio. He became interested in music at a very early age. While a student at the University of Toledo he dreamt up Chuck Taylor & the Dixie Squid. He has since played with countless other groups and is currently the cornet player for the Climax Jazz Band in Toronto, Canada and a quartet, NOPA. He teaches at Ohio Northern University.
Russ Damschroder (6/2/48) Trombone. Born Elmore, Ohio. Started trombone fifth grade. Plays with Genoa American Legion Band. Eb tuba. Married; Debbie. Three children. Librarian at University of Toledo.
Betsy Grafing (5/8/52) Banjo. Born Toledo, Ohio. Started taking banjo lessons in January 1975. Started performing at Shakey's in April 1975 with Ragtime Rick. Also performs at Ragtime Rick's Second Edition with Rick. Married; Rick. Two children.
Jim Fagnano (1/7/32) Drums. Born Niles, Ohio. Public school band director for 21 years. Has performed with many bands. Joined CJB in December 1980. Married; Pat. Two children. Five grandchildren. Now a retired electroplater.
Rick Grafing (5/4/52) Piano. Born, Brooklyn, NY. Started on piano about seven years old. Started playing at Shakey's Pizza in Toledo in 1973. Went on to play and manage the Shakey's in Fort Wayne, IN until 1979. Played and managed at Olde Towne in Toledo until opening Ragtime Rick's First Draught (his own place) in 1981. Now runs Ragtime Rick's Second Edition. Married to Banjo Betsy.
Bob Miller (10/13/48) String bass. Born Detroit, Michigan. Began playing guitar professionally at age fourteen. Has played washboard, banjo, and string bass with the CJB. Now a professional musician and tax preparer during the tax season.
Nicole Heitger (3/4/74) Vocals. Born Toledo, Ohio. Has formal training in voice and ballet. Began singing with the CJB at about age sixteen. Was featured with Tommy (tuba) Saunders' band in Decatur 1993. Also sings for weddings.
BOB BYLER; JOURNALIST, FAN:
"It's one of the Toledo area's best known attractions for curious tourists and knowledgeable jazz gourmets."
"Whether the appeal is to fellow musicians wanting to join in the fun or to ecstatic listeners, the Cakewalkin'Jass Band has a magnetism that both derives from and also transcends the appeal of traditional jazz."
"The Cakewalkin' Jass Band is the happiest happening for music lovers in this area for many years."
RAY COLEMAN; EDITOR:
MELODY MAKER (ENGLAND)
"Two other bands impressed (me) especially with a directness of attack ... from Toledo, Ohio, the Cakewalkin' Jass Band."
JOHN RICHMAN; FREELANCE JAZZ WRITER:
WEST COAST RAG
"..., the Cakewalkers have ensemble strength ... The effect is impressive."